Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition 1.14

Today’s AI comes courtesy of reader Alice, who asks:

Would you go to Mars knowing that it could permanently damage your health? Why or why not?

Discuss!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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102 Comments

  1. I’ve asked the same question of Phil Plait and Emily Lakdawalla, except it was more along the lines, “if you didn’t have an absolute guarantee that you would be able to return.” They were both incredibly boring and answered that they wouldn’t. Astronomers ruin the all the space fun.

    Heck yes, I would. They could even say something to the effect of, “We’re going to send you to Mars, but there’s absolutely no chance, unless you survive until we can start sending crews with returnable shuttles,” and I would still go. They would have to supply me with a few years’ worth of water, ramen noodles and cigarettes, but I’d be there with bells on.

  2. “No, I don’t wan’t to go to Mars.”

    “Hey, Lynda Carter, I know you traveled in time from the 70s to do me, but I’d rather not.”

    “Hey, let’s put our balls in this hot T-Shirt Press.”

    I am equally likely to say all of these things.

  3. As a Mars Society member, my answer is more along the lines of “hell yes, and here is my bag already packed.”

    The deal is, when you run the math on the radiation risk (which is usually what this question is about) it works out to about the same lifetime increase in cancer risk as smoking for the duration, or about two and a half years. Considering the number of people who accumulate that risk fresh out of high school for grins, it hardly seems worthy of consideration.

    As for more serious risk-you engineer the hell out of them, test like mad, and jump-just like every explorer and adventurer in every age-though all things considered, in the age of mature aerospace engineering, good medicine, telecommunications, and a massive science and engineering complex that has your back, you’d be safer than any generation of explorers before you.

  4. Totally, but Saturn’s my favorite planet. I keep waiting for NASA to announce an essay contest for a “Nurse In Space ” (even though in those contests the winner probably only gets to orbit the Earth, if they are lucky). I used to be afraid to fly, but after flying to Vegas, I realized how safe and cool it really is. Plus I’m a huge space nerd- my husband shares a name with an Apollo crew member (introducing ourselves to Phil at TAM was a hoot). Plus, it’d be a great story to tell the patient in the bed next to you when you get sick (“That’s a shame about your hip, Mrs. Fletcher. Me? Oh, I got sick when I went to Mars. Best thing I ever did, other than marry my husband. So totally worth it.”)

  5. I would prefer to fly to Mars first class and stay at the Olympus Mons Hilton. However, if it came down to a choice between not going at all and a long, grueling, health-damaging trip just to stand on Mars for a couple minutes, I’d still go because it’s, as Kimbo Jones says, fucking Mars.

  6. That seems like a silly question to pose to the Skepchick reading masses. If anyone answers no, they need to surrender their Geek Card and go sit in the corner while we all point and laugh at them.

  7. To go to Mars and be one of the first humans to explore another world, not a moments hesitation. Even if I died after reaching Mars, setting foot there would make me able to die happy and knowing I fulfilled one of my biggest dreams. My ancestors packed up everything they had and came to a new country not knowing what their future held, I’d hope I have that level of courage too.

  8. Strap me to the nose of a rocket and blast me off! I would not hesitate, even if it was a absolute one way trip. As many have said, its MARS, isn’t that reason enough. I drool at the thought of the geology to explore.

  9. Do I have to be the first dissenter? No, I probably would NOT go to Mars, at least not right off.

    I don’t even want to go to Africa, which is right here on Earth, because I need all sorts of shots and owie needles and things to make sure I don’t catch the Death there. I’m not sure I would feel much better about a long trip to a cold, lonely place with unknown health risks and little chance of return.

    I would imagine that a trip to Mars would be costly, and as I’m no scientist or journalist or engineer, I’d be taking up valuable space and weight. And as exciting as it might be to be ON Mars, I wouldn’t want to be among the first to go. I’d want to wait until we knew exactly what the hazards were, and what the odds of coming back might be. And even then, we’re talking a journey of years… sometimes I can’t even be bothered to ride the T a few stops to hang out with friends!

    So there. Every party needs a pooper and I’m more than happy to play that role :)

  10. hmmmm.

    If you look at it as “there’s no guarantee I’ll make it home tonight alive either,” then yeah, I’d go.

    But if you just put me in a capsule and I’m sitting there waiting for one of those things in [i]Death from the Skies[/i] to pan broil me, then it would be tougher. (What’s that one that the atmosphere protects us from? A solar mass ejection or something that will either kill me or turn me into the Hulk? What are the chances that one of those WON’T happen while I’m en route?)

    If you’re asking about the risks of The Unknown, then that’s one thing. If you’re talking about giving the finger to The Known, then I’ll pass. Maybe the reason the astronomers give such boring “no” answers is because they know how well and truly screwed we’d be two weeks after we left home?

    Find a solution to the fatal things we know will absolutely happen to us, then yeah, let’s go.

  11. HELL YEAH! *****HELLLLLL YEAH!*****

    Even if I knew I would die there. Seriously… to actually walk on a different planet? To see different moons in the sky?

    Sure, there’s some standard caveats about my family being taken care of, and being able to send video back for the Highlander & the Phoenix to look at when they’re older, but in the broad sense? Hell. Yeah.

  12. Probably not, unless I knew that I didn’t have long to live anyway.

    To be honest, the thought of the loneliness there would scare the crap out of me. It’d be an awesome experience apart from that.

  13. I’ll risk my health for things far less cool than a trip to another planet. Besides, maybe on mars I could actually manage to take a break from facebook/twitter/reddit/slashdot/cellphone/etc. and get some actual work done.

  14. Would I go to Mars? Damn right.

    Why? 5) With all the overtime I might be able to pay off my student loans; 4) I made the mistake of borrowing too much money from this guy named Vinnie “The Grip” DiPasquale; 3) I’d finally be able to quit smoking; 2) That may be where I left my car last night; 1) “It’s fucking Mars!”

  15. @Expatria: I’m in total agreement. Everyone else can go and make sure its all documented on HiDef for the NatGeo channel for us back home. I’m not fussed by needles but I don’t have a desire to visit any third world country. Not that I wouldn’t like to see many of the things/places whatever’s in third world countries I’m just not interested in the associated inconveniences. Mind you I go back packing every summer but I eat like a king and don’t worry about malaria while I’m at it.

  16. I figure I’d be willing to get promised a journey to the moon only to have it cancelled mid-trip by a massive oxygen tank explosion resulting in a six day moon-shot filled with stress and constant expecation of death while slowly freezing in a cramped and ill-prepared LEM while not knowing if the power, oxygen or heat-shield will survive long enough for me to get home alive…

    So, yeah… I’d go to Mars.

  17. Allow me to add myself to the small list of dissenters.

    I can’t even fly in an airplane without freaking out. For me, a potentially one-way trip to Mars would be right out.

    The only way I’m going to Mars is by TARDIS.

  18. @jedischooldropout:

    I figure I’d be willing to get promised a journey to the moon only to have it cancelled mid-trip by a massive oxygen tank explosion resulting in a six day moon-shot filled with stress and constant expecation of death while slowly freezing in a cramped and ill-prepared LEM while not knowing if the power, oxygen or heat-shield will survive long enough for me to get home alive…

    Oh, like THAT could happen. Be sensible.

  19. I’m with wb4, I think it would be boring as hell. Also have no desire to go to the moon. I like third-world countries and airplanes and all, but I limit my travel (even hypothetical travel) to the terrestrial sort.

    I have this weird feeling that Rebecca pulled this one out of a little box of pre-written conversation starters somehow, because she forgot it was Wednesday again. :P

  20. No. There’s no good reason for a person to go to Mars. If we really need rock/air samples that can only be analyzed here on Earth it’d be much better to send up a number of automated return probes (a sort of unmanned Apollo 11).

    The only reason to go would be a vanity exercise, the chance to play at Sci-Fi, and given the pressing needs of people here on Earth a colossal waste of time/money/effort.

    On Balance there is no scientific need for a manned mission to Mars, there is however an urgent need to deal with environmental degradation here on the Earth. Any Mars mission would simply be a distraction exercise on the part of government to keep the public focused on something other then the increasing impact of anthropogenic climate change.

  21. If I did not have a wife and daughter to concern myself with then , HELL YES!

    “if you didn’t have an absolute guarantee that you would be able to return.” I don’t have an absolute guarantee that I won’t be killed riding my bike to work every day or crossing the street or falling in the shower. I would be willing to take a substantial risk for the opportunity to go to Mars. And, for the right reason, I would easily accept not coming back.

    We shouldn’t be going to Mars to plant flags or even to do science. russellsugden is right that machines can do a better, cheaper and less risky job of that. No, we need to go to mars as a vanguard of the expansion of humanity off of our world. It’s a big, dangerous universe out there and it would take a surprisingly small and comparatively insignificant asteroid impacting the Earth to destroy all of civilization. Life would survive. Earth would survive. We would not. The only way to ensure humanity’s survival is to spread ourselves throughout the solar system in genetically sustainable populations. And the best place to start is Mars.

  22. What the Hell. My body’s shot already. Why not!? Maybe the lower G will do me some good…
    But only if I can contribute to the mission in a meaningful scientific way. No John Glenn boondoggle Shuttle trips for me.

    @GabrielBrawley: You’ve been into The Martian Chronicles again, haven’t you?

  23. YEAH! Why explore another planet when we can wallow in the solvable problems that we merely lack the political will to fix. I mean did we really need to go the moon, what with the Vietnam conflict heating up? I mean it’s not like the manned space program gave anything back to society. And it’s not like the earth studying satellites and computers simulations that even allow us to talk intelligently about global warming and recognize the problem in the first place are at all related to our manned space program. No, I’m sure that putting money into a manned Martian landing would not yield any fringe benefits to make fixing global warming at all.

    It’s fucking MARS.

  24. Yeah! Hell yeah! and Fuck Yeah! And nitwit comments saying that this would be just an exercise in vanity and a distraction from global warming get my sphincter in a knot.

    All scientific efforts payoff in ways not always expected.

    Hell yes, lets go and sign me up.

  25. @truthwalker: What’s the best way to demonstrate to your enemies how good you’d be at launching Nuclear Missiles at them? If you can put a Rocket into Space, you can certainly put one on Moscow.

    Sat-Nav started out military, as did the web, as did computers, jet engines started out on fighters etc etc. It’s sad, but we seem to do our best work only when we’re trying to kill one another.

  26. @russellsugden: I agree that manned missions to Mars (or the Moon) are a waste for the reasons you’ve given, and have commented so elsewhere. Given a national debt of $10,617,699,627,383.00 as of today ($451,154,049,950.63 was paid in interest on the national debt in fiscal 2008), and a projected 2009 deficit in excess of $1,200,000,000,000.00, any manned missions are idiotic, if not psychotic.

    On the other hand, given a hypothetical Mars mission where the cost could be comfortably afforded and the environment is no longer at risk, what would you do?

  27. @russel
    You said that a manned Martian landing would be a waste because it would just distract from human caused climate change. I responded that the benefits of the first program are what even allow us to talk intelligently about climate change. You said, those benefits came about from military technology. Assuming you are right, how does that make them non-beneficial?

  28. @russellsugden: No. There’s no good reason for a person to go to Mars.

    ———–

    Tin cans are cute, but they cover pathetic amounts of ground and can’t update their missions easily. They can’t think, and they can’t design new experiments. They can’t experience Mars, and they don’t have any motive to make it habitable. The amount of science that humans could get done is exponentially greater than any automated mission, and colonizing Mars should be a huge priority for the human race. We can either expand out or die, and Mars is really our best shot.

    The idea that we have to choose between global warming, poverty, and debt on the one hand and a manned mission to Mars on the other is asinine. We just set 700 billion dollars on fire for no good reason…. money that would pay for dozens of manned missions to mars. And those missions would provide something for the money besides a sick sense of betrayal.

  29. I also dissent, for some of the same reasons listed above. I’m basically a wuss, and the thought of being inside a space craft for that long, that far away from Earth gives me a case of the howling fantods, to borrow a phrase.

  30. Most certainly! Its another freaking planet. Hell yes.

    Its the great flaw of astronomy … its what I’m going to spend my whole life doing, but I’ll never able to touch what I’m studying. So allow me to also echo kimbo in saying, “because its fuckingMars!”

  31. I’d miss my kids too much. But before I had them, I’d have gone in a second. Once they turn into parent-ignoring teenagers, I’d once again consider taking a ride to the Red Planet.

    We MUST learn to reach out into space and spread ourselves out. Any person making the sacrifice to go there is contributing a huge amount to the perpetuation of humanity.

    Besides, to step foot onto another planet is just too cool.

  32. @sethmanapio:
    The idea that we have to choose between global warming, poverty, and debt on the one hand and a manned mission to Mars on the other is asinine. We just set 700 billion dollars on fire for no good reason….

    That statement makes the actual decision on whether to go or not a no-brainer. The Crap has to be set straight. We do need to do all we can to stop it.

    Check out:
    http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock/ and
    http://www.realclimate.org/

    Japan didn’t have any space or military program when they started beating GM, Ford, Chrysler Mercedes, and BMW into the ground. Italy never had a space program, but Alfas, Lambos, and especially Ferraris are OMG. I don’t know if you recall, but Motorola (Japanese) processors ran rings around Intel, so IBM teamed with (then new) Microsoft to ensure US technology won out.

    You don’t need space, military or SF programs to develop technology. All you need is to get your shit straight and think big.

    Seriously though. Maybe I’m wrong, but maybe what Rebecca was asking was pretty much “Well, if you could, would you? Really? Well, why would you?”

  33. @Knurl
    First of all, it’s pretty obvious that this little argument has nothing to do with the question. One of the reasons we all come here is to argue.

    Second, it wasn’t said that we shouldn’t work on human caused climate change, it was said that a manned martian trip would be a better investment of tax payers money than a stupid war.

    Third, I didn’t say you needed a space program to develop technology. I said that the very technology that we use to collect and correlate data would not be as advanced without our space program.

    Forth, Japan did have a space program before they began the large scale importation of cars to western markets. ISAS launched it’s first satellite in 1970.

    Fifth, Japan did not beat any of those companies into the ground. Japan was able to enter a competitive market, not create a monopoly. And it did so because it’s plants were built post WWII and ours were pre. As we replaced factories and theirs wore, the gap narrowed.

    Sixth, Alphas, Lambos and Ferraris are pretty. That does not mean they are advanced. Yes they use many cylinders and DOHCs. So Dusenburg in 1933.

    Seventh, computer does not just mean personal computer. The integrated circuit is the backbone of the computer and was invented on the DoD’s dime for missile guidance. Those guidence systems made the Apollo guidance computer, which was the first modern computer.

    Eight, Motorola is an American company. Always has been.

    Nine, IBM did not team up with Microsoft to ensure US tech won. IBM hired Microsoft who then sold their OS to anyone making PC. IBM then had to partner with Microsoft because there was no other player as embedded. and they did it all for money, not national prestige.

    Ten, “you don’t need space, military, or SF programs to develop technology” . Of course not. You need money. And the government has the tax payers money. If you don’t think the government should spend money on grand projects, you can’t logically ask that it spend it to solve global warming.

  34. @russellsugden: *chokes on tongue*

    Human geologists, biochemists, and flight engineers are pretty blasted hard to duplicate. If you want to chip open rocks, shovel holes, mix reagents as you see fit, repair power and science equipment for indefinite mission life, climb cliffs and into caves, telerobotic operate vehicles in real time, and in general guide the course of exploration in seconds per decision vs hours for probe commands that might not be up to the task owing to a limited configuration, and do everything else that you need to do loads of real science, you send real scientists. Most estimates of the science return of the first week of a year and a half surface stay (complete with a 50kph rover with a 1000km one-way range and unlimited ISRU refuelling) dwarf the science return of all Mars mission to date by an order of magnitude. It’s also, as has been mentioned before, an oppurtunity to field test the technologies needed to expand humanity’s reach to the only other body in the solar system with the elements in appropriate forms and environmental conditions necessary to support a technical civilization of any size.

    As for cost-a smart Mars program could pull off the first shot for $20B, and $1B for each succesive mission using the same architecture, with cyclers and nuclear engines steadily putting the price through the floor (and they might actually get built if there was a current use for them.) That figure is a) not too shabby compared to other deep science projects like particle accelerators and genome projects, and b) vanishes in the noise of any budget. It’s under half a percent of the federal budget-it vanishes in the cost overruns of a major weapon system, much less robbing the world of its global warming defenses (and if we really want to understand geo-atmospheric feedback cycles, it probably helps to examine worlds where they functioned differently like, say, Mars.)

    It’s pennies for a world.

  35. @truthwalker:

    ———

    11. Motorola & IBM have developed technology for space using government money.

    12. So has Honda.

    13. And Toyota.

    14. Italy has a space program.

    15. BMW is a German company. They survived the Japanese invasion, even in motorcycles.

    16. Germany also has a space program.

    17. Engineers move. They publish papers. So do scientists. The value of space is not contained to one country, it is global.

  36. @Aristothenes: As for cost-a smart Mars program could pull off the first shot for $20B, and $1B for each succesive mission using the same architecture,

    ————

    I stand corrected. The Bush administration’s corrupt and worthless bailout package could have funded hundreds of Mars missions, not dozens.

  37. @seth
    Yeah, I continue to agree.

    @ Aristo
    “vanish into the noise”

    25% of the cost of the US government cost is social security disability. 50% of that amount is fraud according to the SSA. Thats 12.5% of total government spending. With the money spent on SSD fraud alone, we switch over to renewable energy over 20 years AND run a manned martian program.

  38. @KingMerv00: I think with our current technologies it is about a 6mo flight. I don’t think I’d have an issue with space madness as I am pretty solitary to begin with, I’m sure we’d be allowed to bring an xbox 360 or ps3 on board (I doubt if I’d still be able to play WOW, but that’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make) plus you’d be conversing with other scientists possibly form other countries as you travelled so the conversations could be potentially very interesting.

  39. I would conditionally say Yes. My conditions?
    I want to go first class, be served meals and waited on in all ways. More importantly, it would depend on where on Mars we would be landing. If all I get to see is Victoria Crater, I’ll pass. However, if the plan was to land near Valles Marineris, oh yea. Imagine the view standing on the edge of the largest canyon system we know of. I think that would be worth the risk.

  40. No. Sending humans to Mars now or in the foreseeable future would be a complete waste, and would irreversibly destroy the major value that Mars has to humans.

    At present it is unknown if Mars has life. We won’t know for sure until either life is found, or until there have been holes drilled through the permafrost all over Mars.

    To send humans to Mars is to irretrievably contaminate Mars with bacteria from Earth.

    We know that all life on Earth is related via a last common ancestor some billions of years ago. If there is life on Mars, it might be unrelated to Earth life. Access to life that has evolved from a different origin would be of enormous value to understanding the origins of life on Earth, and the likelihood of life in other places, the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and other planets. The value of that information is so much more than the photo-op that is all a manned Mars mission would be.

  41. @daedalus2U: It’s too late for that, unless you truly believe that the interiors and exteriors of all the Mars landers we have sent there are perfectly sterile, in and out. (I assume here that the reentry temperatures in Mars’ atmosphere are high enough to sterilize the heat shields or aeroshells, but what about the landers themselves?)
    Remember that NASA discovered live bacteria in one of the Moon landers… :-(

  42. All the Mars craft have gone through some level of microbial contamination reduction. The lunar lander went through nothing.

    There is a difference between possibly depositing a few organisms in a few spots inside equipment vs. depositing hundreds or thousands of kg of viable bacterial biomass (human feces are a large fraction bacteria biomass).

    The surface of Mars may be more hostile than is the surface of the moon. Mars is quite oxidizing.

    I am not saying never go there, just understand what is there and what we will be destroying by going there before we do destroy it.

  43. I think we, as humans, need dangerous and uplifting goals or we stagnate. We may have gone to the moon to show the communists that would could drop bombs on them from space but the fact that we went to the moon helped to uplift the spirits of all humans. Humans, at our very core, are explorers. If we weren’t all of human life would still be on the African continent. The last forty years has seen America become small and petty and greedy. I think we may be passing out of this phase but nothing is certain. We need insurmountable challenges. We need to set goals that we can’t help but fall short of. Because, when we strive for the impossible we can achieve the remarkable and sometimes we find out that they weren’t impossible after all.

    “We choose to go to mars and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

  44. @daedalus2u: I am not saying never go there, just understand what is there and what we will be destroying by going there before we do destroy it.

    ———–

    Why don’t we just figure out a way to go there that doesn’t destroy it? Because if we actually want to do some science on mars, the best things to send are people.

  45. sethmanapio, you are completely wrong. What we need on Mars are instruments. The instruments that humans have, eyes, ears, taste buds, etc are crappy and provide very little useful information. The only information they provide is subjective.

    You can’t send just one person, it isn’t safe enough. You have to send multiple people. Then you need a life support system and a back-up. Then you need a return space craft that can carry the humans back, plus their life-support and back-up.

    What has the space station cost so far? $100 billion? They haven’t even done anything with it yet, they are still just building it.

    For what it would cost to do a single mission with humans you could sent 20 or 50 robotic missions, each with better instruments, each with a longer time on Mars. Not needing to carry a life-support system (and a back-up) saves a gigantic amount. Everything can be a lot less reliable if human lives don’t depend on it. Less reliable means cheaper and lighter. If it fails, you send another, and another, and another. That is still much cheaper than sending a single human mission.

  46. What we need on Mars are instruments. The instruments that humans have, eyes, ears, taste buds, etc are crappy and provide very little useful information. The only information they provide is subjective.

    ——————–

    I’ll just quote someone else from earlier:@Aristothenes: “If you want to chip open rocks, shovel holes, mix reagents as you see fit, repair power and science equipment for indefinite mission life, climb cliffs and into caves, telerobotic operate vehicles in real time, and in general guide the course of exploration in seconds per decision vs hours for probe commands that might not be up to the task owing to a limited configuration, and do everything else that you need to do loads of real science, you send real scientists.”

    It’s obvious that if you send humans + instruments, you get more than if you just send instruments. Scientists work better when they don’t have to wait 10 to 20 minutes between giving a simple command like “turn left three degrees” and seeing the results. If instead, for example, they turned their heads and took a picture. And instead of spending all day circling the rock, they could spend 10 or fifteen seconds recording the rock and then moving on.

    An instrument is an extension of human senses, not a replacement for human judgment or capabilities.

  47. If a “mission with instruments” and a “mission with humans and instruments” cost the same, you might be right. They don’t. A mission with humans and instruments costs at least 100 times more.

    Can you get “more” science from 1 mission with humans and instruments than from 100 missions with just instruments? The answer is pretty obviously no you won’t get more.

    If you spend an equal amount of money on missions with humans and instruments and missions with just instruments, the missions with just instruments win hands down as far as delivering more science.

    Spending all day circling a rock with a $200 million robot is a lot different than what you could do with a $200 billion manned mission. It is disingenuous to compare two things when they are different in cost by 3 orders of magnitude.

    Put another way, if it costs 200 billion to put 5 people on Mars for a year, that is $200 billion/10,000 working hours, or about $20 million per person-hour. What can they possibly do that makes that justifies that cost? The entire operation of running the two rovers from Earth for a whole year cost about that much. Run two rovers from Earth for a year vs. one astronaut on Mars for an hour? Which can do more science?

  48. @daedalus2u: Spending all day circling a rock with a $200 million robot is a lot different than what you could do with a $200 billion manned mission. It is disingenuous to compare two things when they are different in cost by 3 orders of magnitude.

    ————

    First off, your cost is arbitrary, inflated, and therefore you yourself are not being honest. Second, since you literally can never get the same science done with rovers that you can with humans, the comparison doesn’t work. The humans are not merely thousands of times more valuable, they are qualitatively different. Third, even if we just talk about speed, it takes a human less than a second to turn his or her head. It takes several hundred seconds to even tell a rover to turn. Therefore, the human is at least 2 orders of magnitude more valuable in speed alone. Take flexibility into account, and even at your inflated rates, the human mission is worth the cost.

    Especially compared to, say, the Wall Street Bailout.

  49. seth, do you know what the failure mode of most instruments on Mars is? The failure is due to differential thermal expansion and contraction inside electronics breaking connections. How is a human going to repair that? With a soldering iron? Have you ever tried to repair an IC with a soldering iron? Has anyone ever successfully done it?

    If you want the equipment to be repairable, it has to be designed to be repairable. Which means it can’t be sealed. Another failure mode is for dirt and grit to get inside of stuff. Very often sealed bearings last longer than bearings that are periodically lubricated. What causes lubricants to break down is heat (primarily) and you can design for essentially unlimited lifetime. What causes bearings to fail is debris, either debris from external contamination or wear debris. If the bearing is sealed, and surface loads are below where fatigue can produce wear debris, and there is no corrosion, the bearing may last for decades or longer.

    If you use bearings that must be periodically lubricated, then you have to carry lubricants and have to lubricate them periodically. In a robotic mission you design for a certain life using sealed bearings and when they fail, they fail and the mission is over (if that is a mission critical bearing). You can’t allow a wheel bearing on a manned mission to fail if that puts humans in danger. Trips have to be limited to the distance that a human can walk back using the O2 supply they can carry because if they couldn’t get back they would die.

    If everything has to be field repairable, then you can’t weld anything shut. Welding something shut is the lightest, strongest, most reliable method of sealing. Bolting instead of welding adds cost, adds weight and reduces reliability.

  50. @daedalus2u: You can’t allow a wheel bearing on a manned mission to fail if that puts humans in danger.

    —————

    So, basically, you’re entire argument rests on the idea that we can’t put the human crew in danger? Why the hell not? We put human crews in danger on earth all the time. One skepchick came dangerously close to being raped and murdered by pirates. A stray shipping container could have sunk her to the bottom, never to be seen again. Does this mean we should only do research on unsinkable ships? No. No it doesn’t.

    Further, the distance a human can walk with an O2 supply is farther than the distance that any rover has yet covered. And that’s one day of travel. Humans could actually explore a circle in a few days that covered the area of hundreds of robot missions.

    You could make the whole lab mobile. You could create caches of oxygen for multi-day trips. These kinds of problems have been solved over and over.

    Finally, you seem to be making an argument based almost entirely on your lack of imagination and courage. The trip has to be super safe, and the solutions to problems have to be ones that you, personally, can imagine. Those are fallacies, mere variations on the argument from personal credulity. The trip could be dangerous as hell, with virtually no chance of return, and people would still go. And there are plenty of people smarter than either of us to tackle the engineering.

  51. In the words of the Wizard of Oz, “You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom.”

    In other words, fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.

    The designed for safety of the Apollo missions was estimated to be 90% chance of mission success and 99% chance of survival of the crew. Apollo 1 had a fire that killed all aboard in training and Apollo 13 didn’t make its mission.

    A 1% chance of dying is pretty high.

    So far there have been 124 shuttle flights and two have been destroyed catastrophically due to equipment failure with loss of all on board. Estimates of the safety of the Shuttle were quite variable (as reported by Feynman), from 1 in 100 (by engineers) to 1 in 100,000 (by managers).

    It is terrible public policy to let people volunteer for jobs that are extremely dangerous. That will lead to a race to the bottom, where employers will risk lives to save money. The people risking their lives will not be the people saving the money. Not in a trip to Mars, not in industry. If we allow people to do highly risky things for money or “glory”, I could see a big entertainment market opening up, one where people risk death in return for a big payout (if they survive). Watch the movie the Deer hunter, where people played Russian-roulette for hire so that other people could bet on who would “win”.

    Your arguments seem to revolve around the simple mechanical tasks that humans can do with no regard for how much it costs to put them there, how difficult it would be to keep them alive during the process and how little extra science they could do over what instruments can do.

    Hundreds of robot missions could be done cheaper than a single mission with humans. The difficult part of any mission is getting the equipment to Mars. The robot rovers that have been sent have limited capability because they are extremely limited in mass. Spirit and Opportunity rovers weigh only 400 pounds and their solar arrays can generate only 140 watts. How much extra science could you do if you added a human to that? 400 pounds isn’t going to keep a human alive for long enough to even get there, so with your dead human you get nothing. With a human mission you have to get the equipment there plus you have to get the humans and their life-support systems there. Plus you have to bring the humans back.

    Mars isn’t going away. It has been there a long time; it will be there a long time in the future. There isn’t a need to rush into doing haphazard experiments that contaminate the planet. There is a lot of information on Mars. More than can be gathered in thousands of missions. There is still plenty of information left to gather on Earth. Eventually we should gather as much information on Mars as we have gathered on Earth. That is not going to happen via a few manned missions. It isn’t going to happen by wasting money on very high risk manned missions which kill people.

  52. @daedalus2u: Your arguments seem to revolve around the simple mechanical tasks that humans can do with no regard for how much it costs to put them there, how difficult it would be to keep them alive during the process and how little extra science they could do over what instruments can do.

    ————–

    No, my argument is that

    a: humans can do exponentially more science if on mars than if not on mars.
    b: we should learn to live on mars because its a bad idea to have all of our eggs on earth.
    c: the fact that it is dangerous is not an argument to not do it.

    You, on the other hand, are inflating the mission cost, insisting that danger is bad, and pretending that humans can’t do hundreds of times more mars science there than we can here.

    Deerhunter? That could be the worst comparison in the history of comparisons. It had nothing to do with your point about industry, and it has nothing to do with acceptable risk in science or anything else. Why don’t you watch “The Right Stuff” and try to get some of it?

    Again: people already die doing field science. We let people face death in submersibles, in Antartica, on survey ships, near volcanoes, in test planes, in space. Mars is no different.

  53. You really don’t understand my position and are making a straw-man argument. I am not saying don’t study Mars. I am not saying don’t try to understand Mars. I am not saying never send humans to Mars. What I am saying is that where technology is right now, we can get more science/$$$ by using robots rather than sending humans.

    You seem to be saying that what ever the risk is, it is acceptable. A trillion to one shot is just a waste of money and of lives, even if it just cost $1. You would have to try it a trillion times to get one success. That many humans have never been alive, so the human race would go extinct before pursuing trillion-to-one shots would be successful. You would encourage experiments such as this

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wan-Hu

    so long as there are people willing to try it. Wan-Hu’s chair had zero chance of getting to the moon and would have generated zero scientific results even if he had gotten there. The fact that people have been exploited and killed for no useful reason in the past is no reason to exploit and kill people for no useful reason in the future.

    Mars is many orders of magnitude more inhospitable than is every place on Earth. A permanent habitat on the top of Mount Everest would be many orders of magnitude cheaper to construct than a temporary habitat on Mars.

    What do you think a manned mission would cost and what science deliverables would it achieve? What ever science a manned mission can achieve, an unmanned mission can achieve it cheaper.

    Since there is a direct trade-off between the cost of a manned mission and the chances of the people not dying, what trade-off of $$$ for lives do you think is appropriate? What ever the market will bear?

    I have no doubt that someone could set up a pay-per-view program where “astronauts” would try out Wan-Hu’s chair and they (or their heirs) would be paid a fee based on the pay-per-view proceeds. You seem to be saying that is A-ok. How is that different than the Russian-roulette parlors? It isn’t.

  54. What do you think a manned mission would cost and what science deliverables would it achieve? What ever science a manned mission can achieve, an unmanned mission can achieve it cheaper.

    ————

    This is obviously untrue, as human beings can do things that machines can’t. That is the central fallacy of your argument.

    Also, please refrain from saying that “I would say” this or “I would say” that. Reading what you think I would say, I am impressed with your imagination, but not with your reading comprehension skills.

    For the fourth time, I believe, I am simply saying that the existence of risk does not negate the possibility of going. I said this in response to your statement that “You can’t allow a wheel bearing on a manned mission to fail if that puts humans in danger.” This is clearly an absurd level of safety, we have wheel bearings that fail and put human lives in danger on earth all the time.

  55. Forgive me for putting words into your mouth, but you seemed to be saying that if a person deems a risk to be acceptable for themselves, then it is. Desperate people will do desperate things. There is no shortage of desperate people who can be exploited hired to do things with near certain risk of death.

    If you are not saying that any level of risk is acceptable, then tell me what level of risk is acceptable. If you are not able to say what level of risk is acceptable, then tell me what criteria is acceptable to decide what level of risk is acceptable.

    What algorithm will you use to set the trade-off of safety for cost?

    Can you name 5 things that humans can do that a machine cannot be designed to do? Things that would be relevant in Mars exploration?

    A failed wheel bearing on Earth doesn’t put human lives in danger because Earth’s atmosphere supports life. Your point that all robotic rover missions have been shorter than the distance a person could walk is irrelevant. The whole point of having a wheeled vehicle is to go father than a person can walk.

    A better analogy would be in cave diving, with limited supplies of breathing air, using a battery operated propulsion device. If you can’t get back to the surface before your air runs out, you die. Looking at some of the statistics on cave diving fatalities is informative.

    http://www.iucrr.org/fatalities.pdf

    There wasn’t just one cause of fatalities. Some still had air left in their tanks.

    I read The Right Stuff, and you should read it because the movie doesn’t go into enough detail on what the right stuff actually is. The title refers to the mythology that built up among the pilots that every fatality was due to pilot error; that is if the pilot had the right stuff they would never have a fatal crash. Every pilot believed that they had the right stuff, and that every dead pilot had just shown that he didn’t have the right stuff by dying. This was a very convenient mythology to build up, because it shifted the blame for fatalities from the manufacturers of the equipment to the victims. Shifted blame from those ordering the pilots to fly to the pilots. That mythology feeds right into human nature and the feelings of young men that they are invulnerable and can do anything. If Wan-Hu had “the right stuff”, he would have been successful.

    If we look at the experience with the shuttle, the engineers thought there was a 1 in 100 chance of failure. The managers thought there was a 1 in 100,000 chance of failure. So far the failure rate is 2 out of 124 missions. Not even 1 in 100. In terms of allocating resources, the managers would say, “there is plenty of safety, 1 in 100,000 is pretty safe, don’t waste money on safety, I should get a bonus for not wasting money on safety”.

    That is what happened in New Orleans. The levies were unsafe, the engineers knew they could fail, money wasn’t allocated to prevent them from failing, and they failed. What was the response? “No one could have predicted the levies would fail.”

  56. I thought of a still better analogy, the bonfire at Texas A&M University.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggie_Bonfire

    In preparation for the 1999 bonfire the pile of wood collapsed killing 12 people and injuring 27.

    In discussions on whether to continue the tradition, many in favor of continuing it said that to stop it would mean that those 12 “died in vain”, that is they died for no good reason.

    Some people may disagree, but to my thinking, dying so as to build a big pile of wood to burn is dying in vain. Having a big pile of wood is not something worth dying for. No amount of hype or spin or fancy words by charismatic leaders exhorting the gullible to build a bigger pile of wood to burn is going to change that (in my opinion).

    One of the football coaches suggested that there were parallels between the deaths in the bonfire collapse and in the deaths at Gettysburg. Here is an essay that addresses that idea.

    http://www.garlikov.com/misvalue.htm

    There are things worth dying for. It is unfortunate that humans put such a premium on risk for the sake of risk. I am reminded of the quote by Patton, where he says “No poor bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making other bastards die for their country.”

    Making science so competitive that people are willing to die to do it is wrong. It is a way to destroy science, not make it better.

  57. @daedalus2u: A failed wheel bearing on Earth doesn’t put human lives in danger because Earth’s atmosphere supports life.
    ……..
    Making science so competitive that people are willing to die to do it is wrong. It is a way to destroy science, not make it better.
    ……
    Can you name 5 things that humans can do that a machine cannot be designed to do?
    ———

    You have obviously never been in the wilderness or behind a car with a catastrophic wheel bearing failure. I’ve seen transaxles bound across highways before, putting many lives at risk.

    As I have pointed out, people are already willing to risk death to do science, every day, all over the world. And they are doing it. It has nothing to do with science being competitive, it has to do with scientists being curious.

    If you can’t accept basic, mundane facts that describe reality accurately, how can we have a hypothetical conversation about mars?

    Right. We can’t.

    Humans can think, are massively multifunctional, and have better general pattern recognition skills. So a single robot cannot, for example, see something interesting, decide to examine it more closely, climb to the place it’s at, take a core sample, and then continue the previous mission. That’s a morning for a field geologist on Mars, but a rover with wheels might have been stuck, while a rover without wheels can’t really travel well, etc.

    I forgive you for putting words in my mouth. I do not forgive you for your incredibly lame comparisons. They are black holes of irrelevant suck.

  58. Why do you limit it to a single robot? What will limit the number of robots is the total cost.

    Why do you limit it to a single morning? What will limit the time on station is the total cost.

    Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been “on station” for 5 years now. They can be left on station until they fail because they are machines. People can’t be left on Mars until they die because they are human.

    When that transaxle failed, was it fixed on the spot? Or were the humans present unable to fix it because they didn’t have the infrastructure of a machine shop with tools and spare parts?

    If the camera of a robot sees something interesting that it can’t investigate, a machine can be designed, built and sent to Mars to take the core sample there and all the other interesting spots along the tract of the earlier rover.

    The Vision for Space calls for a manned mission to Mars in 2037. 28 years from now. That is a pretty long wait for an astronaut to take a core sample. If you allow a 1 year to figure out what interesting sites a rover has seen that should be investigated further, 1 year to design something to do the tests you want and then 3 years to implement it and ship it to Mars, that is a total of 5 years. We could have 6 iterations of that before a human can set foot on Mars. If you are in a hurry to do science on Mars, don’t wait until 2037 to start the mission.

  59. @daedalus2u: Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been “on station” for 5 years now. They can be left on station until they fail because they are machines. People can’t be left on Mars until they die because they are human.

    ——–

    And they’ve completed the science that a human mission could do in a couple of hard days.

    Look, dude, I’m not saying that the current stuff is useless. I’m not saying that robotic missions don’t pay off. I’m not saying we should stop sending robotic missions.

    I’m just saying that it makes sense to plan and execute a human mission. So please, argue against points I’m actually making.

    And as for the transaxle, that scraping sound? It’s you moving the goalposts.

  60. You have given no reasons why spending money on a human mission would deilver more science than spending the same money on robotic missions.

    You can’t compress 5 years worth of weather data into a couple of days of measurements. If you want 5 years of data, you have to measure stuff for 5 years.

    Thus I demonstrate that your statement that the science the rovers have done over 5 years could be replicated in a couple of days in a manned mission is false. A manned mission might do different science, but it can’t do 5 years worth of anything in a couple of days.

  61. A manned mission might do different science, but it can’t do 5 years worth of anything in a couple of days.

    ———-

    False. It would take a couple of days for the humans to do the areology that the rovers have done in five years. In fact, in a day, humans can do more areology than the rovers can ever do, because the humans are not as limited.

    To say again: humans can get places robots can’t. They can create new experiments. They can travel farther, faster. They can do more things per pound because they can use more tools in more ways. Humans can do more science than rovers, exponentially so.

    If we want to learn about mars, we need to send people to mars. Especially if we want to learn things about sending people to mars, which is a realm of science in itself and a very valuable one at that.

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